Autism and Travel

Light It Up Blue for Autism April 2


Today is Light It Up Blue Day, Autism Speaks' autism awareness day. This is the 4th year that Autsim Speaks has run a campaign to honor people with autism and bring awareness about autism to others.  You may wonder what this has to do with travel.  I have sometimes found myself in the company of a family with a child on the autism spectrum.  I've learned a few things I can share about how to make that experience positive.  I've also learned that families with children on the spectrum can find successful travel experiences for their children!  Really, both things require a dose of what will probably work for any trip and any family...a little tolerance and patience on the part of us fellow travelers and the ability of families to plan a trip that meets the needs of their child, what ever their special needs and special abilities may be!

For travelers, understanding what autism is and how it affects children and their families goes a long way to being a tolerant fellow traveler!  The Autism Speaks website, here, is a good place to start.  Like most things, two people who have autism can be completely different and experience their autism in unique ways.

In my own experience I have occasionally seen a child "melt down" during a stressful travel experience (and I have no idea if the child was on the spectrum or not!).  My own response is to try to normalize this; avoid making negative comments or rolling eyes.  I assume that any child having a melt down might be suffering from a disorder that makes their emotional regulation more challenging or they may be just be having a bad day and deserve a little patience on my part!  I try to smile kindly, and look supportively towards the parents.  The moms and dads I know with special needs children always say that's helpful, because they are already challenged and trying their best to meet their child's needs under difficult circumstances.  Feeling a little support rather than scorn from fellow travelers really helps!

Occasionally, a child on the autism spectrum (or not) will be very curious and engage me in conversation or show interest in something I have with me while I'm on vacation.  I've had children who are excited and curious about their travel experience not understand that they might be interrupting someone's relaxing vacation with endless questions.  My own strategy is to patiently engage them for a little while (some of the kids ask great questions and I always enjoy meeting my fellow travelers of any age!) If the questions or attention starts to get too intrusive to me, I politely, kindly and clearly explain "I need some alone time right now, but I've enjoyed chatting with you".  This direct approach works well, and leaves the child feeling like they had a positive interaction with a fellow traveler.  

For families with a child on the Autism Spectrum or traveling with any children,  the best advice is to plan a trip designed to meet the needs of your child and family. This might mean working with a travel agency or taking a trip specifically designed for families with Children on the spectrum.  I will share Autism Speaks excellent web resource for travelers here  

Here are 3 tips that will work for any traveling child!

  1. We always designed our itinerary around what our children could tolerate.  In Walt Disney World, this meant avoiding roller coasters that were scary to my children.  Hiking in Maine, we always chose a hike that could be easily handled by the youngest child.  Making these choices meant compromising, or not experiencing everything a destination may have to offer, but with each trip our kids developed more skills and competence and were left wanting to do more travel, not dreading the next forced march.
  2. We always tried to include our children's interests in our trips. From an early age our girls expressed delight about animals and enjoyed watching them.  This led to us planning several "wildlife" trips with a mix of culture and history thrown in.  We all want our kids to have an "educational" experience, but exposing them to things that truly engage them is when they learn best. This is good advice for any family and especially for one with children with special needs! 
  3. It's important to prepare children for travel.  Our girls dreamed of going on safari in Africa. We went to the zoo and practiced looking at the animals with our binoculars, we practiced sitting quietly for a long time waiting for animals to "do something".  This allowed our girls to progress to a much more adventurous and long trip to Botswana when they were teens. These practices not only prepared our kids for a what behavior might be expected on a safari, but it also allowed us to "test" whether our girls were really ready for such a big trip before we invested in it!  Preparation for a special needs child might include staying overnight in a hotel in your own town (you might get a local hotel to donate the night to you on a slow night if you let them know your plans) or dressing from clothes out of their suitcase for a few days.  Each parent usually knows best what sorts of things their own children might need to be prepared for. 
Learning how to use binoculars and a camera at the zoo prepared our children for a lifetime trip to Botswana

Learning how to use binoculars and a camera at the zoo prepared our children for a lifetime trip to Botswana

Some other special travel programs for children with autism

  1. Because we love to cruise and have often cruised with Royal Caribbean, we have learned about a program called Autism on the Seas This program provides special cruises for families with children on the spectrum and also provides staff, accommodations and respite care on integrated cruises.  There are several lines involved now, including Disney and Carnival.  We've seen this program in action on cruises and I've talked to parents who said it was the only way they could ever have taken a cruise with their child (or in the case of one single mom I cruised with 2 children!) There is even financial assistance available.  I don't think there is anyone who needs a vacation more than the parents of a child with special needs!
  2. I have also stumbled across a program at my airport where children with autism are invited to the airport with special staff to allow them to experience the security line, go onto a plane and see what the seats look like and "practice" sitting with their seat belts and taking off.  Many autism awareness groups run these kinds of events annually at their local airports. Click here for some airports that offer the program.
  3. Another program I became aware of while at the Boston Opera House, was the occasional special productions for families with children with autism or other disruptive neurological disorders.  This allows children to respond, or leave if the show gets too overwhelming.  The lights generally stay on low, loud sounds moderated and actors often introduce themselves ahead of time to show their costumes if their character might be scary.  There is a list of upcoming local performances that "autism friendly" on the Autism Speaks Website here


To participate in Autism Speaks' Light It Up Blue campaign click here

Here is a sign you can download print and take a selfie with to raise awareness. Extra travel credit if you can identify all the global icon buildings and where they are located! 

Here is a sign you can download print and take a selfie with to raise awareness. Extra travel credit if you can identify all the global icon buildings and where they are located!